Castle of the Week 111 - Nauplion, Greece
This Castle of the Week is actually a collection of forts and castles built around one city, Nauplion. Nauplion (also Nafplion or Nauplia) is a Greek city located on a peninsula in the Argolic Gulf, 12 km from Argos and 4 km from Tiryns. The number of forts and bastions established in Nauplion through the years are a testament to its importance.
Nauplion became a settlement in the Late Helladic Period. According to legend Palamedes of Nauplion set off on the expedition to Troy, but was falsely accused of being a traitor by Odysses and murdered before the fall of Troy. Palamedes' father, Nauplius, took revenge by sending his other sons to seduce the wives of the other commanders. During the long ten year siege, only one wife remained faithful to her husband.
In the ancient world Nauplion was an independent city and a member of the Maritime League of Kalauria. In the 7th century BC, during the second Messenian war, Nauplion sided with Sparta against Argos. In retaliation the king of Argos destroyed Nauplion then turned it into a port and naval station for his own city.
The main fortification in Nauplion is called Acronauplia (or Its Kalé to the Turks). The ancient acropolis is located on the south half of the peninsula. Originally built by the Romans and Byzantines, the fortifications were strengthened by a succession of conquerors, including the dukes de La Roche of Athens, the Venetians, the Turks and then again the Venetians. There were two main castles, a French one and a Greek one. Over time several more bastions were added to the three levels of the Acronauplia. There was no wall on the south or west sides; none was needed as it was a sheer drop to the sea.
Already on a peninsula, the Acronauplia was further separated from the mainland and protected by a moat. The bridge across the moat was built of both stone and wood. The side furthest from the city was made of stone, while the side closest to the city was of wood. The wooden part could be removed at any time, taking away access to the city. Another defensive feature was a stronghold just behind the moat, with vaulted ceilings and underground passages. The passages were stocked with explosives, ready to be blown up if an attacking force were overhead.
Once past the moat, there were two gates into Acronauplia. They were both constructed of iron, but the second one was fashioned like a trap-door, lowered from the ceiling. This second door was decorated with an Arabian sword which belonged to the first janissary to cross the gate when the Turks captured the city in 1715. Legend has it that the sword dripped blood every Friday to commemorate the city's capture on a Friday.
On a rocky islet in the Gulf is the small sea fort known today as Bourdji, built during the second occupation of the Venetians. The islet once had a church which shared the name of the islet, St. Theodore. The plans for the fort were drawn in 1471 by an architect named Gambello. The walls around the fort were 150m long, and were fortified with towers and cannon. The Venetians called the fort Castello di San Theodoro. When the Turks conquered Nauplion in 1715, they added a high defensive tower.
Bourdji had one particularly interesting feature that aided in the defense of Nauplion. The only deep sea access to Nauplion was in the water between the islet and the city. Ships approaching from other directions met with shallow water and foundered. To take advantage of this, an iron link was built into the round tower on Bourdji. A heavy iron chain stretched from the tower across the water, and was anchored in a bastion on a jetty. The bastion was fortified with 5 cannon (and was thus called the Bastion of the Five Brothers). Any approaching vessels hoping to enter the harbor had to pass by the chain, and were subjected to crossfire from both Bourdji and the bastion. The Venetians called Nauplion Porto Catena, or the Chain Port, because of this defensive feature. Bourdji was used as a fort until 1865, then became the residence of the executioner.
To the east of Acronauplia is the most strategic fort of Nauplion: Palamidi, named for the Palamedes of legend, and built under the Venetians who were in control at that time. 220m above sea level, Palamidi was built over ruins of older fortifications from 1711-1714 by the Frenchman La Salle, using plans created by Giaxich. The eight bastions comprising Palamidi were arranged in three groups: San Girardo, San Nicolo, and Sant' Agostino. The eight bastions were self-sufficient and capable of firing upon the others if they fell to the enemy. While five of them were connected by a wall, they each had their own cisterns, storehouses, and guardhouses. Unfortunately for the Venetians, La Salle betrayed them to the Turks, allowing the capture of Palamidi as well as Acronauplia. In 1822, during the War of Independence, the Greeks, under Staikos Staikopoulos (with just 350 men), sieged Palamidi for several months and finally conquered it. The next day Acronauplia, Nauplion and Bourdji surrendered to the Greeks. Palamidi (though having once fallen to treachery and betrayal) was considered an impregnable fortress, and everyone was surprised when the Greeks were able to take it.
The Greeks renamed the eight bastions, giving them Greek names: Achilles, Themistocles, Phocion, Epaminondas, Miltiades, Leonid, Garrison Headquarters (translated from the Greek), and Robert (named after a French Philhellene who died during an attack on Athens). In 1779 a group of Albanian soldiers were pushed over the edge of the cliff at the Themistocles bastion by the occupying Turks. Miltiades was the largest of the bastions. It had 7 store-rooms that were later used as a prison. One of its famous prisoners was a hero of the War of Independence, Colocotronis, who was sentenced to death for being a friend of the Russians.
Today, though several of the bastions in Nauplion have been replaced with modern buildings, the remains of the castles and fortifications are all around. Memorials have been built at many sites, and Palamidi, Acronauplia and Bourdji are all destinations for tourists.
Fortresses and Castles of Greece, vol. II, by Alexander Paradissis.
Write-up and pictures by Kester*.
*) denotes a former staff member.